Of all the evil characters in fairy tales, I found the Red Riding Hood’s wolf the scariest. He’s been called the “Big Bad Wolf,” but that name evokes a canine domesticated by the animator’s pen. The wolf I encountered alone in the deep dark woods of my imagination, while being read the story of Little Red Riding Hood, was a terror whose title couldn’t be tamed by alliteration.
Fairy tales don’t just present readers with Creational goodness, they also illustrate the results of human failure to obey God’s one condition—the presence of Evil. So we encounter both nobility and brutality, beauty and ugliness, harmony and conflict; dichotomies resulting from the distortions of a good Creation caused by the Fall.
In this regard, then, fairy tales reflect reality as it is presented in the Bible: that human beings live in a moral universe. In man’s disobedience to God, sin entered the world and fairy tales reflect the moral struggle that ensues. For in almost every fairy tale, characters and their actions embody good and evil; and “it is this duality which poses the moral problem, and requires the struggle to solve it” (Bettelheim). That humans are moral creatures with the choice between good and evil is fundamental to the biblical worldview.
The power and scope of evil is another truth that faerie stories offer. In them we encounter external evils, like ogres, wolves and villains whose very presence is a sign of the evil that threatens and “often it is temporarily in ascendancy” (Bettelheim).
Evil not only an external threat but is also found in “the closest circle of intimate relationships.” Most often this intimate evil is signaled in the form of stepmothers. These tales depict “perverted relationships within the family . . . the [reader] learns that despite all the moral teachings and the wide range of appropriate behaviour hammered into him, he cannot take this world for granted—especially not people” (Shokeid). Scriptures clearly relate that evil is not only a force from without, but also something with which we struggle within ourselves and within those who are closest to us.
In “Cinderella” we find this situation in that Cinderella’s mother, “who had been the nicest person in the world,” was replaced by a stepmother who was “the haughtiest, proudest woman that had ever been seen” (Perrault). The hyperbole emphasizes the effects of sin are not experienced only by the wicked, but also by the good: Cinderella, “who was of an exceptionally sweet and gentle nature.” Under the guise of close relatives, the [step relatives] function as agents who introduce the outside unprotective world into the safe family shelter” (Shokeid).
Many parents believe that children should not be exposed to realities of evil but only to “pleasant and wish-fulfilling images . . .—that [they] should be exposed only to the sunny side of things. But such one-sided fare nourishes the mind only in a one-sided way, and real life is not all sunny” (Bettelheim). Rather than taking the child out of reality, fairy tales presents him with the reality of the fall—that life is “a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence” (Bettelheim). Through the symbols of evil the child experiences the presence of evil and the moral dilemma that sin presents; they begin to develop the resources to live in a fallen world.
Encounters with injustice and, occasionally, brutality bring the reader into another important Biblical reality. Because fairy tales expose the tension that exists between the good creation and the sin that has entered it through the fall, they provide a sense that things are not as they should be; they create in us a longing for a restoration of all things to what they once were. C. S. Lewis uses the term Sehnsucht to describe this feeling which literally means “longing” or “yearning.” Because the yearning is for what has been lost, “the crucial concept in defining this attitude is best expressed by the English word ‘nostalgia.’ In Sehnsucht there “is an underlying sense of displacement or alienation from what is desired” (Carnell). All mankind has a deep awareness that there is something wrong with the world and “longs for and strives toward the happy ending so vividly expressed in fairy tales” (Meider). What we long for is the perfection we enjoyed before the Fall.
. . . crossing the line between fantasy and reality
Fairy tales appeal to us because they tell us something that we desperately want to be true. They illustrate what we long for and suggest it is a possibility; they provide us with hope that we can become what we were created to be. Lüthi says, “Every man has within him an ideal image, and to be a king, to wear a crown, is an image for the ascent into the highest attainable realms.” This ideal is found in all humanity because we are aware of our fallenness. Nothing is how it is supposed to be, so we long that it be restored—redeemed.
Cinderella create a sense of longing in the reader. Cinderella was an exceptional young woman, but the stepmother “could not endure” Cinderella’s “excellent qualities” and so, mistreated her—she “thrust upon her all the meanest tasks about the house” and “made her sleep on a wretched mattress in a garret at the top of the house” (Perrault 39). The combination of the goodness of Cinderella and the injustice of her treatment at the hand of her step-relatives creates a sense of longing for the past, for life as it was when her real mother lived. This is Sehnsucht.
In “The Reason For God,” Tim Keller talks about beauty being a clue to the existence of God. He suggests that “innate desires correspond to real objects that can satisfy them”; we experience hunger, thirst, and the desire for sex and friendship, and these needs can be satisfied with food, drink and other people. The presence of beauty, joy and love evokes an “unfulfillable” desire in us, and we “want something that nothing in this world can fulfill” (134-135). Keller says that because it is true of other innate desires, it is also true of this one: there is something to satisfy it—or more accurately, a someone.
Although many deny its existence, Evil is real. Those who believe in the existence of evil, might want to question where they are standing when they are amongst those who treat them too lightly and declare them mere fantasy. Or those on the other side of the room who consider them evil because they contain it.
Bettelheim, Bruno. “The Struggle for Meaning.” Folk & Fairy Tales. 3rd ed. Ed. Martin Hallet and Barbara Karasek. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2002. 376-391.
Carnell, Corbin Scott. Bright Shadow of Reality: Spiritual Longing in C. S. Lewis. Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 1974.
Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton (2008).
Lüthi, Max. Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales. Trans. Lee Chadeayne and Paul Gottwald. Bloomington:IndianaUniv. Press, 1979
Meider, Wolfgang. “Grimm Variations From Fairy Tales to Modern Anti-Fairy Tales.” The Germanic Review. 62.2 (1987) : 90-102.
Perault, Charles. “Cinderella.” Folk & Fairy Tales. 3rd ed. Ed. Martin Hallet and Barbara Karasek. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2002. 39-45.
Shokeid, Moshe. “Toward an Anthropological Perspective of Fairy Tales.” The Sociological Review 30 (1982): 223-233.